For the majority of 2016, I’ve been accidentally celebrating the 20th birthday of Red House Painters’ (m)opus Songs for a Blue Guitar. Accidentally because back in February, I gravitated to the album, as I do semi-regularly. But it stuck with me, this time. It felt necessary and comforting to keep returning to it, to play it at work, at home, to give the CD a permanent place in my car’s disc changer. For some reason, in 2016, a mid-90s sadcore record with three covers from the 70s became unavoidable.
This is Mark Kozelek’s fifth album under the Red House Painters moniker, and it marked a distinct turning point in the songwriter’s career. Not only does it comfortably espouse guitar rock in a novel way for the band’s catalogue, but, appropriately, Kozelek is alone on Songs for a Blue Guitar - aesthetically and instrumentally. He’s the only credited band member. In a way, Songs for a Blue Guitar is a proto-For Emma, Forever Ago. Like Justin Vernon after him, Kozelek reportedly went into the woods - the lonely folk man’s walkabout - to record the album (and presumably grow an unkempt beard), instead of the usual session recordings. Besides the extratextual, making-of similarities, the two albums are remarkably similar in their articulation of sad reflection.
It’s actually hard to overstate how sad this record is. But it’s how Kozelek renders his sadness that makes Songs for a Blue Guitar so relentlessly poignant. The album is a 70-minute meditation on distance. It’s a monolith of what loss feels like. Kozelek has made a career of articulating these themes, but never has he been so clear and consistent. And his habit of recontextualizing pop songs to fit these themes has never been so fulfilling.
This album picks up where ‘95’s Ocean Beach left off, with “Drop,” a song that sees the protagonist navigating the conflict of being simultaneously in love and betrayed. He’s finding out about how love can instantaneously fall away. Not indefinitely, but love can completely dissipate for moments, displaced by hate. On Songs for a Blue Guitar, Kozelek is constantly apprehending the moment when love is gone.
“Revelation Big Sur” opens with the line, “I can’t make anything of why the brightest light fades.” As devastating a sentiment it is, there’s something comforting in Kozelek’s uncertainty; he never offers solutions or explanations. The album is about immediacy, not making it that far yet, and not knowing if you’ll ever have closure about why love is so finite.
Five minutes into “Make Like Paper,” Kozelek pauses from his guitar solo to make a similar remark: “Way back, back then, I considered you my best friend/but the last time I saw you/I knew I’d never see you again.” What’s so affecting about a line like this is the earnestness of his tenor. And the sadness of the observation is pronounced by being couched in improvisational guitar solos. The line feels isolated, as if he’s coming up for air for one single thought. To be so taciturn in a 12 minute song emphasizes the protagonist’s solitude. Kozelek makes palpable that terrible feeling of distance between you and someone you used to be closest to. But again, Kozelek finds solace amongst despair.
Other times, distance is manifested through extra-relational forces. Like on “Trailways,” a song about a partner’s depression. It’s a simple memory of being close to someone consumed by sadness (“You drove through heat and hard rain/three hundred miles in the roots of your pain”). Although he knows her sadness keeps them apart and will eventually obscure him from her memory (“The feelings that stay with you now/get lost over time somehow”), he can find comfort in the phrase “but you were my friend.” There is no conclusion. He will remember feeling intensely about someone who won’t. The song drifts off to an outro of redundancy that emulates being at a loss for answers. He hasn’t learned anything, but he knows they were friends.
There’s a John Cassavetes quote about how all of his films metaphorically start at the point the protagonist feels lost: “When you cease to know the way home, things go wrong. And then you get detoured. And when you can't find your way home, that's when I consider it's worth it to make a film.” This is what Songs for a Blue Guitar does on almost every track – it eschews grand exposition and declarations about love for the sake of micro-realizations that come to you when you can’t find your way home. The album closes with the mantra “She lost her faith/her faith in me” - a quiet revelation he learns just by studying his partner. That the record traffics in lone images rather than didacticism is what lends the record an unassuming weight that allows it to feel vibrant and necessary two decades from its release.
Besides the album’s timeless emotional relevance, Songs for a Blue Guitar’s sound isn’t explicitly marked by its time. It helps that the pristine guitar and drums that carry the album don’t really sound of an era, although some of the heavily distorted guitar, prominent on “Make Like Paper” and “Silly Love Songs,” makes sense among some of its 90s indie rock peers like Built to Spill and Dinosaur Jr. (Lore has it those two songs, in their 11+ minute glory, unsurprisingly scared 4AD away from keeping Kozelek and co. on the label, spurring him to create his own label Caldo Verde.)
However, within the context of Kozelek’s catalogue, time is starkly marked by how young he sounds. The nearly 50 year-old was just about to enter his thirties when Songs for a Blue Guitar was released. Not only does Kozelek sound young, but he hasn’t yet become completely embittered. His voice on the album’s opener, “Have You Forgotten,” might be the gentlest he’s ever sounded. To go chronologically through his works, from Down Colorful Hill to his latest with Jesu, is to listen to an often compassionate young man turn into a paragon of the aging white rocker dude with an acute case of fragile masculinity. His early records find him having trouble with love and loneliness. His more recent records seem made by a man who's realized his loneliness is here to stay.
Some of the cranky antics of his later output make quite a stark contrast with the the young, pre-embittered-old-man Kozelek, whose perspective is marked by a vigilant search for love. He never swings fully into emo navel-gazing and is the furthest from cold and detached. His protagonists are beat up by love’s travails but never jaded. There’s no grudges. Instead, empathy is inextricably tied to loss.
Although there’s no clear consensus among fans that Songs for a Blue Guitar is the fillet of Kozelek’s work as Red House Painters, it seems quite clear to me that none are as consistent, efficient, or haunting as the record he put together on his own, in 1996. Whenever I’m feeling down or going through some semblance of loss or distance, lines from this album, like “I can’t make anything of why the brightest light fades” come rushing to me. It doesn’t offer me any lessons, just comfort and commiseration.